Iraq's Saddam Hussein has no doubt been developing new biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in the year since he finally chased U.N. inspectors from Baghdad. But the Iraqi dictator will use these weapons only in extreme circumstances. He presents no direct challenge to U.S. forces now. He can be outwaited.

This is the nature of the calculation that President Clinton and his politically attuned national security adviser, Sandy Berger, have made on Iraq. For them, it is the next year that counts, not the one that has just passed without any inspections.

Their strategy is to preserve the status quo and avoid any direct challenges from--or to--Saddam as Al Gore's campaign for the presidency moves into high gear. Keeping Iraq off television news and the front pages has again become a driving force in U.S. policy.

That means keeping economic sanctions in place against Saddam's regime, continuing the frequent but militarily inadequate air raids begun in December 1998, and providing cosmetic help to the Iraqi opposition while restricting militarily useful support for Saddam's foes.

In this politically sensitive year, Clinton and Berger have essentially taken Iraqi policy into their own hands. There is no significant discussion of policy alternatives at an interagency level, administration officials confirm.

Clinton and Berger have long been uncomfortable with (and have basically ignored) the hawkish positions taken on Iraq by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. I understand they now also discourage Defense Secretary William Cohen from seeking any substantive review of Iraq policy: The White House tells the Pentagon to be sure to report any big changes spotted on the ground. But until that happens, there is no need for a policy review.

For the past two years the Clintonites have been scaling back their once high-pitched public alarm about the biological poisons, chemical gases and rudimentary nuclear facilities that Saddam promised the United Nations to give up as a condition for the 1991 cease-fire ending the Gulf War.

U.N. inspections established that Iraq was still hiding horror weapons and the means to produce them, as well as a small missile force. When Saddam ended the inspections 13 months ago, Berger declared that the administration was "pivoting" to a policy of "regime change."

But there has been no effective followup to those declarations. The administration spent much of the past six months at the United Nations negotiating on a Security Council resolution that establishes a new and weaker inspection regime built around an assumption of Iraqi regime survival, not regime change.

Washington's tactical maneuvering on the U.N. resolution, which Saddam thus far has rejected, seemed to be designed to shore up long-term support for sanctions and to ease international criticism of the administration. It thus reveals Berger's real but publicly unvoiced expectation that the United States will work to contain Saddam for the foreseeable future--not topple him.

"Iraq will not use weapons of mass destruction except in absolute worst-case scenarios," one person who has access to and is in agreement with White House thinking on Iraq told me. "Only in the event of an invasion from Iran, or the prospect of Saddam's final collapse in front of a national uprising, would the Iraqis be tempted to risk it."

Short of those circumstances "containment is sufficient and effective," this source emphasized. "The last two years have shown that regional states are not destabilized" by Saddam's survival and the absence of an effective inspection regime.

But the Iraqi leader has consistently defied such misguided expectations of American presidents and their advisers as well as his Arab neighbors.

Saddam will not go quietly into the night of containment. He survives, in part, by showing his population that he matters regionally and globally. A U.S. election year is, in his view, a golden opportunity for intimidation, blackmail and brinkmanship.

Given the costs and risks of regime change, the Clinton administration is willing to tolerate not only Saddam but a small trove of weapons of mass destruction in his hands. This seems to me to be a far riskier proposition than the White House acknowledges, even to itself.

Gumming the bullet on Iraq's weapons programs now ripples into the future as well: It strengthens the pressures on Clinton and his successor to establish a national missile defense system that is at this point mechanically uncertain and diplomatically dangerous.

Clinton thinks he has Saddam in a box. But the president may be boxing himself in on missile defense by not dealing now with Saddam's defiance on weapons.